SMART PEOPLE, noting that neither signs of friction nor signs of progress on substance came out of Menachem Begin's talks with Jimmy Carter, are saying that the Israeli prime minister caught the president at a bad time -- distracted by Iran, the Pennsylvania primary and much else. What, after all, does it cost Israel to put its Palestinian-autonomy talks with Egypt on a fast track for 40 days and -- in a step seemingly inconsistent with the first -- to put issues still unresolved on a separate slow track after that? By accepting these American procedural suggestions, Mr. Begin bowed to his country's leading patron. By keeping free of hard deadlines and insisting that talks take place in the Middle East rather than in the United States, he bowed to an Israeli public understandably worried that the Begin policy is putting Israel's fate in others' hands.

To doubt that Mr. Carter can keep Camp David alive, however, is to make a judgment that cannot (and need not) be made at this time. The proposals Egypt and Israel have on the table are both (though not equally) unfaithful to Camp David. Egypt demands a "legislative council," for instance: Camp David said "administrative." Israel's refusal to offer Palestinians land and water rights is incompatible even with Mr. Begin's own pinched definition of "full autonomy." Presumably, both sides have reserved the option of making last-minute concessions.

To be sure, nothing indicates that Mr. Begin will allow the talks to develop in a way that will attract self-respecting West Bank Palestinians to the autonomy being negotiated in their name. Mr. Begin's policy has, however, had another profoundly significant and encouraging result. He had convinced Israelis, perhaps a majority, that he promises only stalemate in negotiation, an erosion of the peace gained with Egypt, alienation from the United States as from almost all other foreign friends of Israel -- in sum, disaster. As a result, Israel is popping with other ideas on how to make Camp David work.

If security were ensured, few Israelis would support the West Bank settlements by which Mr. Begin is virtually guaranteeing that Israel alone will be held responsible for a collapse of Camp David. Moshe Dayan would unilaterally remove the military government from the West Bank and Gaza, letting the locals rule themselves as long as there was no terror. The Labor Party, hoping for (and greatly favored in) early elections, would explore partitioning the West Bank with Jordan. While Mr. Begin was in Washington no less, a formidable challenger from his own party, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, denounced him and demanded new elections by the fall.

It is easy, observing Mr. Begin's doggedness, to confuse him with the country and to despair. It is more sensible to realize that the Israeli electorate is in the process of repudiating him, and to keep the autonomy talks going until someone takes power who reflects more accurately Israel's developing new views.